City, County file for preliminary injunction to block I-976

This afternoon, the City of Seattle, King County, and the other parties in the recently-filed lawsuit asked a King County Superior Court judge to grant a preliminary injunction blocking Initiative 976 from taking effect.


This was an expected move, pre-announced last week when the lawsuit was filed.

The motion notes that most sections of I-976 will take effect on December 5th, shortly after the election results are certified.

In order to file the lawsuit, the plaintiffs must establish that they have standing to sue. That’s a bit tricky at the moment, since the election results aren’t certified. But the city has received a letter from the state government confirming that it intends to stop collecting car-tab fees on behalf of Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District as of the effective date of the initiative, providing the evidence the city needs of impending harm.

The plaintiffs must also show that they have exhausted their administrative options for resolving the issue. To that end, it sent Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office a letter asking it to investigate I-976’s alleged constitutional violations.

And the AG’s Office (specifically Solicitor General Noah Purcell) responded, noting “just as statutes enacted by the Legislature are entitled to a presumption of constitutionality, so are statutes enacted by the people. Except in extraordinary circumstances, the role of this office is to defend duly enacted Washington laws. With that context in mind, I have thoroughly reviewed your letter and the legal theories you advance, and I find inadequate basis to deviate from our ordinary role and institute the proceedings that you request. We therefore respectfully decline to do so.”

As an aside, that sounds like a strong statement that the Attorney General intends to defend I-976 in court.

The plaintiffs are also required to show that they are likely to prevail on the merits, and thus they go into more detail on the precise constitutional violations in I-976.

First, the “single subject rule,” which is actually two rules: a ballot initiative may only cover one subject, and that subject must be represented in the title.

Case law says that there are two kinds of titles:  “general” and “restrictive.”  “A general title is broad, comprehensive, and generic as opposed to a restrictive title that is specific and narrow.” If a title is general, then the contents of the bill must have “rational unity” with each other and with the title. If a title is restrictive, then all of the provisions within the bill must be listed “fairly within” the ballot title.

Here is the title of I-976:

Initiative Measure No. 976 concerns motor vehicle taxes and fees.

This measure would repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees; limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges; and base vehicle taxes on Kelley Blue Book value. Should this measure be enacted into law?

The plaintiffs argue that this is a restrictive title, because it is limited to a specific type of charge, motor vehicle taxes and fees, a specific cap on motor vehicle fees, and a particular way of setting the value of vehicles for taxing purposes. They then go on to list several provisions of the bill that are not included in the title, including:

  • the repeal of voters’ ability to approve vehicle taxes and fees;
  • a provision requiring Sound Transit to retire any outstanding bonds under certain conditions;
  • the repeal of two vehicle sales taxes ad the electric vehicle mitigation fee.

But just in case the court determines that the title is general instead of restrictive, it makes the case against “rational unity” as well, along very similar lines: I-976 contains “multiple vastly different subjects.” And to do that, it cites Tim Eyman’s original $30 car tab initiative, which was also thrown out by the courts for violating the single-subject rule for lack of rational unity. The provision requiring early retirement of bonds is the clearest, most obvious case of a separate topic without rational unity (and also came up in an earlier Eyman initiative, I-776). It also cites the elimination of the retail sales tax on vehicles, and the Kelly Blue Book valuation mechanism — which, the plaintiffs argue, “has nothing to do with capping [vehicle license fees] at $30. Simply put, if vehicle fees are capped at $30, vehicle valuation is irrelevant.”

For similar reasons, the plaintiffs argue that I-976 also violates the requirement that the subject of the bill be in the title. And it hammers what it considers to be a “deceitful deficiency” in the title: when it claims that it would “limit annual motor-vehicle license fees to $30, except voter approved charges” since the initiative not only repeals existing charges that were voter-approved, but also repeals the ability for Transportation Benefit Districts to impose voter-approved vehicle license fees and excise taxes. The plaintiffs call this “patently misleading.”

The plaintiffs also reiterate a claim they made in the original complaint: that the text of I-976 fails to “fully set forth all amendments to existing statutes” as required under the state Constitution. It lists several specific examples of this omission.

The plaintiffs argue that “a statewide election cannot undo local election results,” and that in so doing I-976 violates the state Constitution’s self-determination rights for local residents — including home rule. Along those lines, it argues that because the Constitution prevents the state from “imposing local taxes for local matters,” it also cannot interfere with or repeal a legally imposed local tax.

The plaintiffs also allege that I-976 violates the “separation of powers” principle in the Constitution by attempting to legislate administrative acts. They argue that I-976 intrudes on “multiple local legislatively approved projects that are in the administrative phase and forcing the executive branch of local government to address the consequences of each intrusion.” It also delegates legislative authority outside the legislative branch in determining the timing of compliance.

Finally, the plaintiffs argue, as they did in their complaint, that I-976 impairs existing contracts in violation of the state Constitution by rescinding revenue sources tied to issued bonds. They point out that this was previously an issue in Eyman’s I-776, where the state Supreme Court declared that it indeed impaired bond contracts.

In order to get an injunction, the plaintiffs also have to show that the “balance of equities” tips in their favor; i.e. the harms for the plaintiffs if the injunction is not issued vs. the harms for the state if it is; and the remedies available for the plaintiffs if an injunction is not granted but I-976 is later struck down vs. the remedies available if an injunction is granted but I-976 is later found to be valid. The plaintiffs argue that in the latter case, the remedy is simple: refunding to taxpayers the extra tax that was collected. But it argues that the harm caused if an injunction is not granted is great as transportation projects are cancelled and transit service is drastically cut back.


According to a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office, the State is required to respond to the motion for preliminary injunction by Friday. A hearing before the judge is scheduled for Tuesday, November 26.


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